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February 18, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Weaver wanted to create a company to make fuel elements for nuclear plants

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a six-part series about Knoxville entrepreneur Sam Weaver.)

It was the 1960s, and Sam Weaver was working as part of a team in the old Metals and Ceramics Division (M&C) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“Nuclear was just beginning,” he explained. “The lab had a focus on this. Everything was geared around it.”

The nuclear bug had captured Weaver’s attention years ago as a college student. It wasn’t just research; it was the opportunity to be an entrepreneur.

“I wanted to create a company to make fuel elements for nuclear plants,” he said, acknowledging his propensity to have multiple balls in the air at the same time. Weaver was a full-time ORNL employee who was working to complete his doctorate at the University of Tennessee and be a father to two young children.

Undeterred, which is a key trait that Weaver shows, he talked to oil companies, began engaging several of his ORNL colleagues, and even reached-out to a fraternity brother, Ron Brenner, who had just helped Rocketdyne win a large contract to build the main engine for the Space Shuttle.

“The team of guys in M&C was interested in getting something started,” Weaver said. “Unfortunately, we never got it off the ground.” In his characteristic servant leader fashion, Weaver says the failure “was partially due to my naiveté.”

Like any successful entrepreneur, however, Weaver says that he learned from this mistake.

“We decided to start smaller (with) something that I could get a grip on,” he said, adding that his choice was neutron absorber products that would not only control the power of the reactor but also allow it to go longer before reloading fuel. The decision to focus on neutron absorbers is a thread that has transcended much of Weaver’s life.

The first company, U.S. Nuclear, Inc., was formed with the team of engineers from the M&C Division. Shortly after forming the company, “We got a call from a person at Combustion Engineering in Connecticut about a neutron absorber procurement from Babcock & Wilcox (B&W),” Weaver said. “We were going to take a different approach.”

The company that Weaver viewed as his major competitor used a hot pressing approach that was more costly, while his concept involved cold pressing and sintering.

Convinced that his plan was viable, Weaver said that he “took all the money I could borrow and mortgaged our home” to buy a production press. “We built our own furnaces and bought most of the Mason jars in Oak Ridge” to use as a bubbler and store the manufactured pellets.

U.S. Nuclear even bought a warehouse in Oak Ridge and gave the owner 6,000 shares of stock in U.S. Nuclear as a down payment.

“It was a tough product to make,” Weaver said, adding that the Boron10 “had to be controlled within one percent or less.” In spite of the technical challenges, Weaver says that U.S. Nuclear was able to reduce manufacturing costs by 90 percent through its cold pressing approach compared to his competitor’s hot pressing.

“Both products (that we developed) are still being made the same way we made them 40 years ago,” he proudly noted.

In spite of the technical success, Weaver says that B&W wanted to cancel the contract in spite of the fact that “we were a critical component in a billion dollar machine.” Another fraternity brother, Larry Bailes, advised him to play hardball, exacting a steep price to willingly agreeing to terminate the contract.

“I gave them a price of 80 percent (of the contract amount),” Weaver said. “They backed off.”

Along the way, U.S. Nuclear also ran into a technical problem where Weaver had to overrule his engineering team. Fortunately, his decision was the right one.

“We delivered exactly on time what the contract required – 250,000 aluminum oxide-boron carbide pellets,” he said.

After starting U.S. Nuclear, Inc. in September 1970 and completing the first neutron absorber contract with Babcock and Wilcox in May 1971, National Lead announced they wanted to exit the test and research reactor nuclear fuel business.  The U.S. Nuclear team liked the idea and decided to negotiate with National Lead for their equipment and technology.

Weaver, who laughed frequently throughout the interview as he recalled events, said that he “bought all of their equipment in one day . . . without a lawyer in sight . . . and with a hand-written contract.”

In December 1971, U.S. Nuclear was awarded its first contract to make 93 percent enriched uranium fuel elements.  By September 1972, the company had bought 10 acres of land on Bear Creek Road in Oak Ridge, built a 20,000 square foot manufacturing plant, filed and received a Special Nuclear Materials License from the Atomic Energy Commission, and filed and had approved what Weaver believes to be the first Environmental License under the newly passed Environmental Protection Act.

“We also moved all of the manufacturing equipment from New York,” he said. “We delivered our first contract on time in December, 1972.”

U.S. Nuclear went on to buy out the test and research reactor equipment and technology from United Nuclear and Atomics International, eventually supplying all of the uranium-aluminum alloy test and research reactor in the “cold war era free world” except for two reactors.  Radioisotopes from these reactors were used to treat an estimate 10 million people annually.

By the time U.S. Nuclear and two related entities – Nuclear Ceramics and American Furnace Company – were sold to Eagle-Picher in 1980, they had an 87 percent worldwide market share of the neutron absorber business.  The latter was a Fortune 500 company at the time with 105 facilities

Weaver stayed with EaglePicher until the companies were sold to Advanced Refractory Technology.

“We ended-up getting back into some of this,” he said, but that’s part of a latter article in the series.

NEXT: After selling to EaglePicher, Weaver wondered what was next. For a period of time, he was focused on selling kites during the 1982 World’s Fair, but that quickly changed.

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